[03:31] After her nightmarish revelation, it took far too long for Terenyira to leave again – she spent subjective hours with Valcen, discussing opaque details of technology Baishar was sure he couldn't comprehend even if he was close enough to hear their words without distortion.
Finally she traded places with Tanak, disappearing out of sight and (no doubt) to some other layers of Katal – and with that change, the topic of conversation switched from technology to the food Valcen was evidently too busy to pay attention to.
With a patience no doubt rare in Nayabaru, Tanak was trying to feed Valcen... eventually gave up with the rest of it, and sidled away. And then all was quiet in the room suspended in its timeless light, but for Valcen's perpetual tinkering.
Baishar's heart had by now had plenty of time to calm from its initial marathon, and the terror had numbed down to an intellectual horror, occasionally spawning emotional slivers of hot fear biting at his gut, brief, but no less intense. Ryrha had snuck back into the tent, exhausted from her excursion, barely noticing his tension before drifting off to sleep.
[22:43] Baishar, in turn, had barely registered Ryrha's entrance, too consumed by subjective hours of stewing in terror and confusion while the monster lurked outside, carrying on a pleasant conversation with Valcen. It had settled into a persistent thrumming in the edges of his mind, a tension that would not cease. There were too many implications, too many terrifying questions lurking at the periphery of his consciousness. It was an all-too-familiar feeling.
Eventually, his awareness of the outside world noticed that those sounds of conversation were gone. Nervously, he approached the flap of the tent, his muzzle peeking out barely, squinting in the light. No sign of her. But Katal was her home, she could be lurking just out of sight.
Slowly, he stumbled out of the tent, inwardly cursing the eternally bright lights of the enclosure. He stepped past the physics book, still lying open where he'd hastily abandoned it, making his way to Valcen's workbench. His eyes kept darting to the entrance to the room, half expecting to see the thin legs creeping out in a gentle promise of torment and dissolution.
[22:44] He's busy, a part of him chided, worming an awkward guilt into his presence. You're wasting his time. But he couldn't bear the weight of it alone. He needed support, guidance... and maybe just a small amount of comfort against the tides of fate. A reminder that he wasn't alone. Maybe Valcen needed it too.
He approached, silent save for his breathing, mildly unsteady as it was, and gently leant his muzzle against Valcen's shoulderblade — a rare moment of physical contact with his patron. In a softly trembling voice, he asked, "<Is she really gone?>"
[23:11] Valcen's first annoyed glance across at him snapped What do you care? She's barely a threat to you, but almost immediately softened. The silence weighed heavy between them as his mind visibly tried to shift gears from his science project to the interpersonal knotwork of their battered psychologies. That's what it was, wasn't it? They were just good at pretending otherwise.
"<Katal is the least likely place for Tamachelu to be,>" he said, by way of simultaneous confirmation and explanation. Then, hesitant, as though wary of making the implication explicit: "<The Karesejat is gone, yes.>" More quietly still: "<Need something?>" And: "<Said something that rattled you, did she?>"
[23:24] The confirmation brought a shudder to Baishar. It conjured the mental image of the massive spider stalking Tamachelu. Hunting prey. The worst part was the empathy; he could picture himself in Terenyira's place, hunting for food. That her food consisted of the very being he hoped to aid, hoped to emulate; that her prey was the very goddess of qanu, twisted that empathy into something repugnant.
"<I'm sorry,>" he began. After a pause: "<I know this is a distraction, I know you have better things to do than comfort a mortal kavkem.>" He inhaled deeply, then exhaled, not quite able to form the next words. A long moment later, he managed: "<She told me about... what happened to the rest of you. What She did to the rest of you.>"
[23:34] For a moment, Valcen's butchered intelligence visibly struggled with the turn of the phrase – 'rest of you' as in the rest of my kind, 'rest of you' as in the parts of me I lost?
[23:35] Then the ambiguity resolved and the gaze lingered, undecided whether to find the implicit request repugnant or be deeply sympathetic, balanced on that razor's edge. So you want me to lick your imaginary wounds for you.
"<Brain damage,>" Valcen summarised, distantly. "<Thanks to some foresight, not entirely lethal in my case.>" A pause, the bump of a muzzle against the top of Baishar's head, lightly encouraging. "<I doubt I'm telling you anything new if I say it wasn't... nice.>" A grimace, successfully hiding an unimaginable distress in its creases. "<But here I am. I'm still here.>" A warcry.
[00:45] Not even Valcen knows what he was. From what Terenyira said, 'brain damage' felt like a wholly inadequate term for it. So much of you is gone. Dissolved. How much made it into this body?
"<I can't imagine what it was like.>" A pause, a moment of contemplation, and then a whisper: "<...No, that's not true. I can imagine it.>" That was the problem, wasn't it? Imagination was just enough to give him access to the kinds of horrors Terenyira softly promised. "<How do you... How can you stand to be around her? How can you stand to help something that's already killed you once, that would gladly do it again?>"
A part of him already guessed at the answer. Valcen needed her help. If for nothing else than to make the eye. If for nothing else than to build his new qidravem. If for nothing else than to have access to servants like Baishar and Ryrha, who had no better alternatives than to help him. He would talk about the delicate balancing game, he would remind Baishar that they trusted each other to precisely the extent necessary to mutually benefit, and it would all mean nothing to him. It was a calculated decision, nothing more.
Why was he even asking this question? Why was he even bothering with this at all? Trust. You need to trust him. "<...How can I, when I know what she's capable of doing to you?>"
[01:12] A vivid confusion rippled across Valcen's body language, subtly displacing his feathers. Was the empathy confusing him? This second-hand fear, abstract but no less vivid, driving Baishar's actions? Perhaps that was to be expected – he still had no idea what Baishar was hoping to achieve. He didn't know that Baishar identified with what Terenyira eviscerated.
Gently avoiding the barbed question Why do you care?, he offered: "<Realism. The part of me her instincts tell her to devour is dead already. I saved her planet, she reciprocated – I was not tossed to the Nayabaru like a discarded toy.>" Although I nearly was. I nearly was. I'm still not sure if she's being polite or if I convinced her I'm a useful asset.
[01:13] "<We both understand strategy. We can... collaborate, as long as our goals align.>" There's no resentment in his voice. No pain. No vast swaths of uncertainty that might suggest he views her as anything but a kind of equal unfortunately on the wrong side.
Just one mindflayer to another.
...did he admire her, like you might admire an opponent that skillfully beat you at a game of wits? Did he feel outmanoeuvred rather than mangled and torn asunder? How much of this was pure mental self-preservation?
[05:17] The sheer lack of emotion was worse than he'd anticipated. How do you see her? he wanted to ask. Why don't you care that the rest of you is dissolved? It couldn't compare to the horror of Terenyira's conversation, but it still sent a chill down his spine.
At another time, in another mental state, Baishar might have been able to tease more implications from Valcen's response. One piece of information stuck out to him, though. "<You 'saved her planet'?>"
As he repeated the phrase, it struck him. Her planet. The world. "<...Is that how you think of it?>" If he was honest with himself, he couldn't even fault the terminology. The world practically belonged to the Nayabaru, and by extension to the Karesejat. His people barely held on to what shreds of qanu they could find, and for most kavkema, the best they could hope for out of life was a swift and merciful death.
Of course, Baishar was not most kavkema.
[05:26] Valcen gave a soft snort, dispassionate. "<No. Hers in the sense that she's on this one and not any other. If I had saved a different one, she'd hardly feel 'it's only polite not to incarcerate you and feed you to my sadistic minions'.>" And then, as if in afterthought:
[05:27] "<Though she... did most of the saving. Had to do most of the saving, given what she...>" He trailed off for a moment. Not so blasé after all? "<My contribution was primarily letting her know there was a threat to it, and letting her in on a few important secrets what she could do about it.>"
[20:11] ... Oh. That made sense. Baishar breathed a soft sigh of relief: Finally, something that made sense. He wasn't totally lost in a sea of nightmares, there was a lonely log floating here that he could cling to. His curiosity gnawed at it, anything to distract him from the terror of the deeps. Never mind that curiosity had gotten him into this; whatever he found beneath this couldn't be worse than what he'd already learned.
(That was a foolish thought. If his experience here had taught him anything, it was that things could always get worse.)
"<What danger was it in?>" he asked, his tone soft, almost dreamlike. Tell me a story, Valcen. Something to take the edge of horror off. "<And what did the two of you do to save it?>" Never mind that 'the two of you' meant his patron — the fragmented deity — and the Havnateh of nightmares. Working together.
[20:28] Again that pause, that quiet, opaque social calculation, visible only as doubt in Valcen's body language, weighing what he should reveal and what was best sloughed off. Then, condensing all of the complexity down to a few sentences: "<My travel companion was going to use Mekiva itself to burn Terenyira to ashes. To ver, Nekenalos was acceptable collateral.>
"<Terenyira and I moved it out of the line of fire.>"
[20:56] A gentle confusion touched Baishar's shoulders. "<Travelling companion?>" Valcen hadn't ever mentioned something like that. To use Mekiva itself to burn Terenyira to ashes. Another deity, then? Moved the world from the line of fire. A feat only heard of in the oldest legends, from when Tamachelu stole the world from under Tkanetar's snout.
...And yet, if this had happened after Valcen's... death, and he had no qidravem, it couldn't have been that long ago... Suddenly, Baishar's eyes widened, focussing intently on Valcen, his nostrils pulling in a sharp breath. "<...When was this?>" Could it be?
[21:05] Valcen chuckled, a dim but genuine amusement curling through his voice. "<You can't possibly have missed it,>" he said. Deadpan: "<The day the sky changed. The day the ground lurched and shook off parts of itself like mud-caked old feathers.>"
And just like that, he'd put a highly precise date on the time of his uneasy alliance with Terenyira. It was young by the standards of time Baishar might imagine applying to deities. A few months ago.
Valcen had died a few months ago.
[22:01] It was. The day the sky sheared. He'd known it was an omen, a sign of changes in the balance of the world; he'd known there was meaning to be gleaned from it. There had been theories. Some said it was the arrival of a new Havnateh; Vemar perhaps. Some said it was a sign that Maenona, ever distant, had chosen to invoke her influence to some inscrutable end. At the time, the thought that Q'ur might be responsible had briefly raised its head, but quickly been dismissed.
Ironic that, at least in Ryrha's worldview, that last one was correct.
Of course, he couldn't be entirely sure that that was when Valcen had perished. It could have been sooner, it could have been much sooner. But the omens were right; it marked the start of a new era. It marked the point when Valcen had fully transformed from an ancient god of unimaginable knowledge and power into a kavkem-bound spirit aiding Terenyira. How long would this era last? How long before your plans to undermine her come to fruition?
[22:02] He didn't bother to ask those questions. He knew Valcen would not answer them. He could see at least some of the limits Valcen had for putting up with him.
[23:47] While Baishar contemplated the implications of the small but compact scraps of information Valcen had tossed at him, something else began to speak in Valcen's body language. Ultimately ambiguous and hard to grasp, there were some kernels of it vividly clear – a seed of pride here, the light of excitement there.
Valcen was proud of what he'd done. Even battered and nearly discarded by fate, he held a firm faith in his own ability. And why would he not? I've moved this planet, I made it possible for Terenyira to rescue its inhabitants and herself. It took skill and wit to prevail.
And now I'm planning something new.
[02:29] "<So that was you,>" Baishar muttered, tone awestruck, his mind still working through the implications. ...Although, strictly speaking, it had been Terenyira. But the less he thought about her ability to move the world, the better. "<...And who was this 'travelling companion' of yours? A fellow> nateh? <Why were you travelling?>"
[02:47] Valcen closed his eyes for a moment's annoyance. Why answer questions if you know the answer will be poorly received? But what was the alternative, really? Lying? Having to juggle yet another artificial construct? Baishar was either going to start to understand these things, or he'd simply be left behind.
"<Completely without context, this is going to come as an unfortunate shock for you,>" Valcen remarked, tiredly. "<But I'll start that way, regardless. The answer to your first question, framed in a way you can vaguely place, is Tkanetar.>"
Sternly, he continued: "<And now, subdue your first reaction to that. Understand that you don't know anything about him. Understand your precious mythologies have at least half of it wrong. The answer to your last question? We were both here for Tamachelu – to assess the situation, to try to help her.>"
[03:12] The name came like a punch in the gut. Baishar's 'first reaction' was a sharp intake of breath, a sudden step back. He opened his mouth, about to say something, then stopped. For a long moment, he stood there, jaw hanging open, tongue against the roof of his mouth, the first syllable of a question on his lips. Then the mouth closed, the eyes closed; he remembered how to breathe.
"<Why would you—>" The question was cut short. You don't know anything about him. Long moments later, another attempt. "<Why would he—>" Aborted again. Several more breaths. Remember who you are talking to. Remember that he knows much more than you do. Trust him, if you can. If only Valcen weren't making that task so much harder with each piece of information he revealed.
Finally, Baishar lowered his snout to the ground, shuddering lightly but still managing an air of deference. "<...Okay.>" Several more breaths. "<Okay.>" He could do this. He could listen to the words of the remains of a god, take them in, process them. He knew nothing about gods, he knew he knew nothing. He knew nothing about Tkanetar. He could at least suspend what he knew about Tkanetar.
Eventually, a question found its expression. "<What... is he like, then?>" Half of what I know is wrong, but which half?
[03:28] What is Jeneth like? Valcen rolled the question around in his head for a while, heaved a deep, deliberate breath, then declared: "<Honestly, in a nutshell, he's an arrogant jerk. And if there'd be anyone within twice as many lightyears I could have asked for help, I would have. But he's not remotely interested in tormenting your kind.>
"<He even hates the Nayabaru at least as much as you do. He just... doesn't care,>" Valcen said. "<It wasn't easy to get him to come along at all. He prefers watching this planet eat itself from afar, passively exclaiming I told you so as though... anyone's keeping count of arguments won.>"
[03:29] Yes, that's right. Allude to an argument that Baishar's never even heard of. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment's irritation, then thawed out of it enough to continue: "<He predicted a lot of things that went wrong with this world. And he's the kind of asshole that feels smug about that.>"
[06:15] Hearing Tkanetar described in terms as mundane as 'arrogant jerk' and 'smug' was, surprisingly, more disconcerting than Valcen's admission that he'd travelled with Tkanetar. He comprehended the terms just fine, but they refused to stick. The place in his mind where Tkanetar was, where knowledge of him existed, simply didn't admit the concepts.
He hates the Nayabaru at least as much as you do. That at least was vaguely plausible. He could imagine a god, burning with hatred at everything — kavkema, Nayabaru, Tamachelu, Terenyira — but suitably distant that he... couldn't act? Didn't want to act? He's not remotely interested in tormenting your kind.
"<Why...?>" Baishar whispered, the question more a vocalization of his thoughts than anything directed at Valcen. "<...You make him sound...>" The word caught in his throat, constricting his chest. "<...Petty.>" It felt wrong. Everything about this felt wrong. A thought struck him. "<...Was he always like this?>" A moment later, there was a sudden look of apology on Baishar's face. Do you even remember? Would you know?
He winced, rapidly scrambled for another line of questions. "<I mean, um.>" Think, Baishar! "<...You said... he was trying to help Tamachelu?>" A pause, a breath. Then, another connection was made. "<Was he trying—>" He paused, looked behind him towards the doorway, then inched closer to Valcen, guided by some sense of paranoia. In as soft a whisper as he could manage: "<Was he trying to destroy Terenyira?>"
[18:31] Right. Talking to transients about their gods was bound to end in a tangle. He wasn't sure why he'd expected anything else. Valcen geared up to a tired ramble about Threadwielder politics – to the degree he'd bothered to store them in his ersatz-mind – when Baishar boiled the whole line of enquiry down to one important, simple question.
Had Jeneth been trying to destroy Terenyira? An odd spike of doubt briefly lanced through Valcen's gut, product of incomplete memories and the trappings of the culture belonging to this particular mortal body. He remembered Jeneth's resentment and disdain for him as vivid abstractions.
But they'd spoken about it. They'd spoken about how Jeneth was going to turn Nekenalos to cinders if Valcen's plan didn't work out. He'd declared his intentions far in advance; that was how Valcen had known to warn Terenyira.
That was how it had happened, right? A brief mental panic washed through his conscious mind. I can't tell. I can't actually tell if I'm remembering it correctly. Carefully, he arranged himself around the fragment of fear, carved an artificial certainty out of his gut. It seemed likely true. It plausibly fit with everything else.
And yet, it could have been completely invented by his meat brain, his prediction of the aurorae a coincidence. He couldn't know. He could only guess.
[18:32] "<Yeah,>" he said, carefully. "<That was the idea.>" My idea. He just came along. "<But plans don't always work out.>" Vague memories of a hunt gone wrong, barely properly persisted, tugged at his mind. A disconnected thought: Maybe if you'd just stayed put, Jeneth. But he couldn't for the life of himself remember what the bitter thought referred to.
"<Especially first generation plans, constructed on basis of incomplete data,>" Valcen appended, some part of him miraculously aware enough that perhaps 'plans don't always work out' was not the war cry of confidence Baishar likely needed.
He looked at Baishar, carefully selecting a stern gaze from his repertoire of body language. "<We didn't know what the Karesejat was; it's not like anyone that had seen her up close had lived to see the tale. We had only Tamachelu's reports, which in turn were – thankfully – based on second-hand data.>"
[20:05] Evidently, Valcen's moment of panic was visible to Baishar, even if the reason for it wasn't. The kavkem leaned his muzzle against Valcen's shoulder, gently preening his feathers. There was caution in the gesture, a mild uncertainty if this was crossing some social line, a readiness to pull away in apology if it was.
...Just who was comforting who here?
First generation plans, based on incomplete data. What a perfect summary of Baishar’s own situation that was. The more time he spent here, the less certain he became that he truly understood anything. Had the Progression already passed him by? Had he already strayed from the path without realizing it? Or was this the form it took, a thorough shredding of all he believed to be true?
At least half of what you know is wrong. That was a surprisingly hard truth to fully accept. How much of Taaravahr was wrong? Of Leksharia? Of Dynashari? How could he seek the truth, if the entire framework that established the necessity of seeking that truth, the entire framework with which he could understand everything else, was challenged at every new revelation?
The only way is forward. That much, at least, he could cling to, even if everything else fell apart. Cautiously, he asked, "<Then what happened? After you came here?>"
[20:23] Valcen glanced at him with a subdued bitterness. "<I'm not sure what you expect to hear from me,>" he said with a soft sigh and a light shrug, cautious in the motion as not to knock his shoulder into Baishar's muzzle. "<It went pear-shaped. She must have surprised us.>"
Must have. Two deceptively simple words, making it clear just how much had been cut out of his memories.
No, it wasn't admiration that guided Valcen's strange passive acceptance of the Karesejat. It was a deeply intellectual wariness, born of an awareness that much of his knowledge had been carved out of him by a creature he'd been unable to defeat even armed with the full of extent of it.
The more Baishar heard of this story, the more obvious it became that there was a war playing out around him, one of silent and patient players, harkening back to what Valcen had said in the beginning:
[20:24] 'The Karesejat expects that I'll inevitably betray her, I expect she'll try to make my eradication complete and permanent shortly before I manage to do anything of the sort, and we both patiently wait to see how it all plays out.'
A very dangerous game – but one that had to be played.